Although Labor Day weekend has become the traditional end of summer marker (even falling late as it has this year), the Federal holiday was signed into existence in order to honor the nation’s workforce. What an odd holiday this year, then, when so many are unemployed or underemployed, and when the divide between have and have not seems, in fundamental—potentially irrevocable—ways to be widening into a chasm.
At best, I’m perplexed; at worst, I’m demoralized. Most days, I’m somewhere in between—and this is why: I thought the change we sought back in November was going to be far greater than seems likely, and I thought whatever bills got passed were going to at least begin to restore a sense of equity to this country.
November’s election was an overwhelming assertion that Americans want remedy an increasingly alarming trend of vast divides. President Obama and Democrats were swept in as the numbers of those losing health care and jobs rose precipitously, in the wake of banks’ collapsing from greed, and in response to a war in Iraq that even many of its original backers concede was ill conceived and grossly mismanaged. It’s also the case that many people—Democrats and Republicans alike—voted with their hearts, not so much against trends of greed or injustice, but for a man—a black man—whose eloquence in describing an America not of unattainable dreams but simply one where actual justice—meaning education, health care, a chance to work for a living—might exist. It felt as if Barack Obama himself served as living proof of the possible.
Alas. The new administration simply inherited the most recent administration’s problems, problems that were, if anything, on the rise. Almost immediately, things looked terrible, given the convergence of disastrous times for banks, Wall Street, Detroit… along with people losing jobs, homes, and health care at staggering rates. Steep increases in need, sharp decreases in funding meant that homeless shelters, food banks, and other emergency assistance, such as fuel programs, were completely strained across the country. From this story in Sunday’s New York Times, about a family in Asheville, North Carolina: “Charity and her brother, Elijah Carrington, 6, were among 239 children from homeless families in her district as of last June, an increase of 80 percent over the year before, with indications this semester that as many or more will be enrolled in the months ahead.”
Republicans quickly made it clear they would not entertain meaningful health care reform. The road from any possible spirit of bipartisanism to staunch opposition—with outrageous accusations, about Obama’s not being an American citizen to single payer health care as an open door invitation to allow Obama to kill the old people and on—became ugly very quickly. Allusions to Obama as Nazi and threats of violence being deemed, by right-wing members of Congress, justified crowded out any meaningful discussion about how to ensure that all Americans receive access to health care. It’s gotten so ugly that there’s an uproar over whether President Obama—offering a strong message to this country’s students to stay in school—should be allowed to address the nation’s children (as the country’s leader), lest he brainwash them to support socialism.
Afraid of Republicans’ aggression, and anxious about their own potential failure, and with more conservative Democrats opting to defend the system as is, there are signs—written about in Sunday’s New York Times—that the Obama administration is struggling to hold steady, and may be ceding the substance of its initial health care reform goals (like the public option). It isn’t clear that the Obama administration can win—and if it does, it’s unclear what the administration would be winning at this point.
Meanwhile, the health insurance industry is still making money. Like other industries under scrutiny or in trouble, this annual report from the Institute for Policy Studies on executive compensation is alarming: “From 2006 through 2008, the top five executives at the 20 banks that have accepted the most federal bailout dollars since the meltdown averaged $32 million each in personal compensation. One hundred average U.S. workers would have to labor over 1,000 years to make as much as these 100 executives made in three.” So, how does one respond to this? Um, “Happy Labor Day?”